Nigerian women against all odds have commenced a litigation process towards inclusive governance as they present a suit before Justice A. I. Abang of the Federal High Court in Abuja. ENE OSANG in this report seeks explanations.
Globally, the political status of women is gaining more attention as daily reports show their struggle for leadership yielding positive results with increasing numbers of representation in governance and leadership positions.
Overtime, women have proven their willingness to occupy positions, capability to manage portfolios when given the mandate and readiness to bring positive changes to the society with their wealth of experience, education and managerial talent.
It has been argued that countries led by women are achieving better results when it comes to citizens’ welfare; this has been brought to the fore with the outbreak of coronavirus where countries were reported to have managed the spread of the virus led by women.
Recently, the United States of America gave women the opportunity by electing a vice-president who is a woman, which further proves that the norm of discrimination and relegating the gender to the background is fast fading away; just as some African countries like Kenya, Uganda are already operating a gender- equality system that gives more women chances at leadership.
Unfortunately, Nigeria is still lagging when it comes to the representation of women in governance in both appointive and elective positions, despite advocacies and efforts being made by women to change the negative narrative backed mainly by patriarchy and restrictive cultures.
However, women have continued to explore new ways to attain the desired status in the society, even as no meaningful results have been achieved. They have thus decided to commence strategic litigations with the aim of seeking constitutional clarification on the position of the law on the inclusion of women in the country’s democratic process.
According to the national president of the Women in Politics Forum (WIPF), Barrister Ebere Ifendu, “Women have done everything possible trying to use the constitution to see that we have gender equality and it’s not working out. We decided to take legal action because we are law abiding and we believe that the law is the only cause that we have to get what we want.
“President Muhammadu Buhari himself said he will give women 35% we believe and trust him. We know that this is a matter that nobody can stop because like the Judge himself said “it is a matter of importance to the nation.”
Six organisations including Women Empowerment and Legal Aid (WELA), Nigeria Women Trust Fund (NWTF), Centre For Democracy and Development (CDD- WEST AFRICA), Women Advocates Research And Documentation Centre (WARDC), Vision Spring Initiatives (VSI) and Women In Politics Forum (WIPF) were co- plaintiffs on behalf of Nigerian women, CSOs and other stakeholders, who took the federal government to the Federal High Court on December 2, to challenge what they alleged is the continuous denigration of women to the background even when the constitution discourages any form of discrimination against both gender.
The Legal Strategy Team which is a diverse group set up for the Strategic Litigation towards inclusive governance in Nigeria aims at seeking interpretations of the law on non-discrimination and women’s inclusion and leadership in Nigeria’s democratic process as well as raise public awareness on the strategic litigation process and issues of exclusion of women.
The team lamented in a statement issued in Abuja that Nigeria, since independence, is yet to record equal participation of women in the governance process at all levels, the move was therefore set to achieve a milestone on the interpretations of the laws on women’s inclusion in leadership and decision-making positions in Nigerian governance process.
The statement read in part, “The return of Nigeria to democracy in 1999 has not improved the level of inclusion of women at all levels as the proportion of women in both elective and appointive positions has remained low. This is despite the 2006 National Gender Policy (NGP) and the various regional and international instruments that the government has signed on to.
“Nigerian women and other critical stakeholders have continued to mobilise and strategise to seek interpretations of the 1999 Constitution as amended with the sole objective of getting legal backing for a deliberate inclusive governance in Nigeria.
“Various Nigerian governments since independence and since the return of Nigeria to democracy have been reluctant to improve gender equality in leadership and decision-making positions despite a formal support for it through the National Gender Policy (2006) which recommends a benchmark of 35 percent in all sectors.”
The UN Convention
Recall that the government ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1985 and endorsed the 2005 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), which protects the rights of women to dignity, equality, liberty and freedom from violence.
The 1999 Nigerian Constitution (as amended) equally provides for fundamental human rights including the rights to dignity (Section 34); right to fair hearing (Section 36), and right to freedom from discrimination (Section 42).
It is worthy to note that in 2014, women’s groups in Nigeria adopted a “Nigerian Women Charter of Demand.” The Charter demanded: “A reform of electoral laws to provide for affirmative action as a criterion for registration of political parties,” as well as the establishment of “a system of gender mainstreaming which incorporates 35 per cent of women in all sectors of government.
Afterwards, a national WOMANIFESTO has also been adopted by Nigerian women seeking a full recognition of gender equality in governance. This is amidst several bills such as the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill (GEO-Bill) that have been rejected at the National Assembly on the grounds that they compromise provisions on the interpretations of culture and religion.
The women groups filed a suit dragging President Buhari and the Attorney General of the Federation to court, alleging consistent gender imbalance in the governance of the country.
The plaintiffs are complaining about continuous marginalisation of the female gender in decision-making. Joined in the suit alongside the president in the suit numbered, FHC/ABC/CS/1006/2020, is the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN).
The six women organisations asked the court for an interim order of injunction restraining the President from further exercising the Constitutional and Statutory power of appointment in a manner violative of the 35 percent affirmative action policy of the Federal Government of Nigeria as contained in the National Gender Policy, 2006.
They also want an order mandating the respondents to henceforth comply with the principle of equality of the sexes in all appointments in compliance with Sections 42,147 (3) and 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution as amended and Article 19 of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights.
The plaintiffs are also seeking a court declaration that the failure of the President to implement the 35 percent affirmative action policy of the Federal Government of Nigeria is illegal, unlawful, null and an arbitrary violation of the National Gender Policy, 2006.
“A declaration that the failure of the 1st defendant to implement the 35 percent affirmative action policy of the federal Government of Nigeria is illegal, unlawful and a violation of Sections 42, 147 (3) and 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution as amended and Article 19 of the Adrian Charter of Human and People’s Rights.
“A declaration that the overwhelmingly predominant appointment of the male gender into decision making positions of the Federation is wrong, unlawful, unconstitutional, null and void as it violates Sections 42,147(3) and 14 (3) of the 1999 Constitution as amended and Article 19 of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights and does not violate the right of the female gender of equal access to public office,” it stated.
Counsel to the plaintiffs, Marshal Abubakar, who held brief for Femi Falana, informed the court that the matter was slated for mention and that all the parties have been served with hearing notice. Abubakar asked for a date for hearing of the matter, a request and it was granted by the Judge.
Explaining further he faulted the low representation of women in political decision-making, adding that since inception of democracy in 1999 till date the policy has never been implemented.
“In Africa, Nigeria women are the most underrepresented in terms of decision making the level of representation is 6.7% far below what the global Beijing declaration stipulates.
“Buhari promised that as soon as he comes to power he will ensure 35% action but today we are where we are on appointive and elective positions. It is on this ground that women approached the court to ensure that there is parity between men and women in terms of governance,” he said.
Justice Abang’s take
Responding to the matter, the Honourable Justice A.I. Abang said: “This is an issue of national importance. It is the duty of the plaintiffs to prove their case by adducing credible evidence; he thereby adjourned the matter till February 5, 2021. Hearing notice should be issued to the second defendant on behalf of the first defendant.”
Advocates laud move
Co-plaintiff and chief executive officer of Nigerian Women Trust Fund (NWTF), Mufuliat Fijabi, expressed satisfaction on the matter, saying a right judgement “will be for the betterment of Nigeria’s development.”
Fijabi said the non-inclusion of women is an act of violence that no country would want to condone, stressing that closing all gender gaps is an important milestone that would add value to the call for total elimination of all forms of violence.
“2023 is approaching, we cannot specify positions, but we request that equal participation of women should be top priority and give the level playing ground to participate, women are fit for all positions,” she said.
Also, in her remarks, the national coordinator of the 100 women lobby group, Mrs. Felicia Onibon, described the litigation process as “a landmark victory” for women in Nigeria.
Onibon noted that currently there is only 4.6% of women representation at state and federal level , this number she said is very minimal compared to the number women deserve in governance.
“This is one of the best things that have happened to us and I am hopeful that the judiciary will help us ensure that the right of women is given the adequate attention it requires.
“I don’t expect that we would find it difficult because the judiciary is composed of highly learned people who understand where we are coming from and know that we are not just fighting for ourselves, but for the generality of Nigerian women and girls and at the end of the day, victory will be for the country,” she said.